A Decade of Dual Screen Splendour

Turns out I couldn’t do my normal Oscars thing this year because of work commitments, which saddens me. Nevertheless, as pathetic as it might sound, I’ve been waiting for this very day for years now, just so I could put this article up.

The original model – A thing of stunning beauty that made you want to throw up a little with just one look.

It is truly astonishing that a decade has already passed since the release of the Nintendo DS in Australia. On this very day in 2005, almost three months after its American release, the Big N bestowed a truly ugly yet quietly revolutionary portable gaming device on the PAL region for the first time, with a European release to follow a few weeks later. This hefty silver beast came packing not one but two screens, one of them touch-enabled, along with an unassuming microphone for voice input, more buttons than Nintendo had ever put on a handheld before, a built-in instant messenger app and full backwards combatibility with Game Boy Advance games. It was a thoroughly weird hunk of plastic and metal (this was still years before the iPhone, after all) that initially appealed to little more than Nintendo’s faithful.

I was one of said faithful, and my sister and I were there on launch day to pick up our first run versions of the DS, complete with that bundled-in demo cartridge of Metroid Prime: Hunters tantalisingly known as “First Hunt”. Between such a tasty graphical showcase and the joy of Super Mario 64 DS, Nintendo’s fresh console represented a huge step forward in graphical muscle over the GBA, and my teenage eyes lit up at the prospect of what experiences could possibly be on the way for the bizarre clamshell. Many of my friends were bewildered at the very sight of the monstrosity and my attempts to explain its appeal initially sucked, but I didn’t particularly mind if the system wasn’t popular, visually pleasing or particularly comfortable to play for long stretches – I knew it would bring great games to the table.

Well, I was right about that last part at least.

After all, just shy of 18 months later the DS Lite was released. Bringing with it brighter screens, a much smaller form factor, swathes of games with a wider range of appeal than ever before and some deviously clever marketing, the infinitely better version of the DS grew steadily in popularity until it exploded into the mainstream alongside the Wii in the latter half of the decade. The rest is history – the DS became Nintendo’s highest selling console of all time and the success of simple touch screen games paved the way for a smartphone gaming revolution. And unlike with the Wii, the release of so-called “casual” games on the DS did not affect the ongoing creativity and quality of meatier games on the system. All throughout the console’s life cycle, from the original model to the Lite to the camera-enabled DSi to the supersized DSi XL, great games just kept coming out. Some of my favourite videogames ever made their home on the DS, and so without any further rambling, here are my personal favourites. No less than 20 of them, in fact.

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20. Trauma Center: Under the Knife

I’m going to start with the entry on this list that I’ve most recently discovered. As good an argument as any for the extraordinary staying power of the DS’ unique library, I started playing this gem only a few months ago after picking it up for dirt cheap on a whim. And it’s awesome. Though typically weird for an Atlus game and just as typically difficult, the first in what is apparently a series of Trauma Center games is engaging and rewarding in a way I’ve not seen in any other videogame. The relatively unique stress of performing surgical tasks while your patient’s vital signs rapidly tick away, all against the backdrop of an insane science fiction story, feels fresh even in today’s wonderful climate of creative indie experiences.
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19. Metroid Prime Hunters

Though I have much stronger nostalgic feelings for the aforementioned demo of the game, the full version of Metroid Prime: Hunters was certainly nothing to sneeze at. Arriving over a year after said demo, Hunters built on the experimental foundations of the Gamecube’s Metroid Prime 2: Echoes to deliver a gorgeous competitive multiplayer-centric title where the campaign was just the thing you played when you had no buddies around. With a diverse selection of alien bounty hunters from which to choose, each packing a different transformation for mobility and stealth, Metroid Prime Hunters was crammed with ideas way ahead of its time, and honestly represented a concept too ambitious for the limits of the DS hardware. I’d really like to see a sequel on a console with more than one directional input. People who claim the controls of the 3DS’ Kid Icarus Uprising stopped them from playing probably never owned Hunters.
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18. WarioWare Touched!

A quirky launch title for the DS, WarioWare Touched! was my entry point into a Nintendo franchise I now regard as one of my top five of all time. I was positively floored by how much fun could be garnered from a stack of basic-looking microgames lasting mere seconds with only the vaguest of instructions to point the player in the right direction. Touched! was one of the absolute best indications early in the DS’ life of the insane potential of touch screen gaming (it even did Fruit Ninja before Fruit Ninja) and its incredibly bizarre personality shone through every manic twist and turn. There are better WarioWare games out there, but this one is really special to me.

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17. Super Scribblenauts

When Scribblenauts first snuck up on the gaming world at the Los Angeles Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2009, the hype it generated seemingly out of nothing was insane. The promise of a game that had you solving puzzles in ridiculous ways by writing in almost anything that popped into your head was unprecedented, and it delivered in spades, except for one thing: controlling main character Maxwell was a nightmare. Cue the 2010 sequel, Super Scribblenauts, which fixed the control issues and added the ability to write adjectives to modify your summoned chaos. It really is one of the most delightful experiences on the DS.
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16. Final Fantasy Tactics A2

One of the most widely praised games I missed as a result of growing up as a ‘Nintendo kid’ was Final Fantasy Tactics, a truly deep and rewarding turn-based strategy gem on the PS One that I later had the great pleasure of discovering on the PSP. Yet the reason I even wanted to play that game was the series’ Nintendo handheld debut, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the GBA, which received a DS follow-up in the form of A2. Building on the more beginner-friendly, racially diverse foundations of its predecessor, A2 sucked scores of hours of my life and is easily one of the best turn-based strategy games I’ve ever played, even if it isn’t quite as great as Advance.
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15. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

A certified lock on my hard-earned cash as soon as it was revealed, Camelot’s DS entry in one of the Game Boy Advance’s most emblematic series was developed with the kind of attention to detail that makes the studio so popular among Nintendo fans. With a meaty story, plenty of playable characters to add to your party, the debut of visual differentiation for the series’ Djinn companions, several callbacks to the GBA games and a colourful, hardware-pushing visual offering, Dark Dawn is a must-play for any Golden Sun fan.
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14. Advance Wars: Dark Conflict

Known as Advance Wars: Days of Ruin in the United States, where almost every major character also has a different name and the script is a little more light-hearted, 2008’s Advance Wars: Dark Conflict still holds the unfortunate honour of being the latest title in the long-running Advance Wars series to see release anywhere in the world. A criminally underappreciated turn-based strategy game with excellent game mechanics, a strong story and powerful map building tools, Dark Conflict was punished with indifference for its darker and edgier spin on a traditionally hyper-colourful series about warfare and death. Thoroughly worth a play if you can even find a copy nowadays.
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13. Kirby Canvas Curse

To this day Kirby Canvas Curse is still by far my favourite Kirby videogame of all time. An early release in the DS’ life, coming at a time when developers were exploring the possibilities of stylus-based touch screen mechanics with tremendous energy, Canvas Curse tasks players with guiding Kirby along a finite magical line controlled entirely via the touch screen, and unlike other Kirby games, it isn’t afraid to get difficult. Later this year we Australians will be able to get our hands on the game’s true spiritual successor, Wii U claymation game Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush, and that day cannot come soon enough.
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12. Final Fantasy III

One of the DS’ most defining features for many fans is its rather extensive library of high quality JRPG ports and remakes. Though mostly from the SNES era (think Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger), Final Fantasy III pulled the ballsy move of trying to make a super-basic NES game with very minimal narrative appeal resonate with a new generation of players in 2007. And to their credit, the developers at Square Enix doubled down on what made the original stand out – its once revolutionary job system – and improved upon it, deepening the gameplay enough to keep me playing for a long time and ensure that Final Fantasy III became the first main series Final Fantasy game that I ever finished.
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11. Pokemon Conquest

An astonishing surprise when it broke outside of Japanese borders very late in the DS’ lifespan, Pokemon Conquest is far and away the best Pokemon spin-off I have ever played. Sure, that’s not exactly saying much, but mark my words, this Samurai Warriors/Nobunaga’s Ambition crossover title is wonderful. The game’s bright and colourful art style excels at making it look like the handful of starring feudal Japanese warlords were always meant to partner up with Pokemon, and the addictive strategic gameplay adds layers so slowly that there’s always another reason to keep playing. Also, the game will destroy you if you’re not careful. Great stuff.
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10. Super Mario 64 DS

Widely and correctly regarded as the best launch title of the Nintendo DS system 10 years ago today, Super Mario 64 DS remains a stellar example of enhanced porting done oh-so-right. Not content with somehow getting the entirety of Super Mario 64 running on a portable device for the first time, Nintendo added 30 more Stars and three additional playable characters to one of the most celebrated videogames of all time, then stuffed a swathe of multiplayer minigames onto the cartridge for good measure. If it weren’t for the lack of a decent analogue directional input as a control option, Super Mario 64 DS would be definitively better than the original in every way in my eyes.
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9. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Technically the first Phoenix Wright game was a port of a GBA title, but said GBA title was never released outside of Japan in its original form, so Western fans of the awkward lawyer with the famously enthusiastic war cry got introduced via the enhanced DS port. And what an introduction it was. It’s hard to match the thrill of finding crucial evidence for a court case, reading someone on the stand, pinpointing the exact point to present evidence against him or her and then screaming “Objection!” to ram the truth home. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney nails that gameplay hook, but adds in a host of memorable characters, several lashes of humour and some genuinely shocking plot twists to elevate the whole experience to must-play status. Seriously, the game is available in enhanced form on 3DS and iPad right now – go play it.
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8. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

I talked an awful lot about this game throughout my dedicated Zelda month two years ago right here on this blog, but to summarise: Spirit Tracks is a game I initially passed over due to my profound disappointment with its series predecessor, Phantom Hourglass, but when I actually played it many years later, I had to cringe at my own short-sightedness. Arguably everything Hourglass should have been, Spirit Tracks presents a surprisingly quest-laden world to explore, some of the cleverest dungeon puzzles in the entirety of the illustrious series and a fantastic story atmosphere capped off by one of the better endings you’ll see in a Zelda game. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s awesome.
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7. Elite Beat Agents

Quite simply one of the zaniest games I’ve ever played, Elite Beat Agents is a supremely addictive touch based rhythm game in which you guide a team of agents specialising in… something related to motivation through dancing? I’m not entirely sure, but these agents get deployed all around the globe to solve people’s dilemnas, both trivial and surprisingly heavy, until eventually they have to fight off an alien invasion. Yes, seriously. With a very strong tracklist of real songs, an endearing art style and impeccably tight, challenging rhythm gameplay, Elite Beat Agents isn’t just one of the weirdest games you’ll find on the DS, but also one of the very best.
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6. Animal Crossing: Wild World

My goodness, what a game. Though it was surpassed in almost every way by 2013’s excellent Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS, Wild World was the first portable entry in Nintendo’s oddball life sim juggernaut of a franchise, and as it turns out the combination of Animal Crossing and portability went together like banana and chocolate, or banana and peanut butter, or banana and mango – just meant to be. I never want to play another home console Animal Crossing game again thanks to the devious advances made by this shirt designing, animal bribing, bug catching, friend visiting, town destroying, friendship ruining DS triumph.
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5. Another Code: Two Memories

I’d hazard a pretty educated guess that this game is the most obscure on my list, such was its early release, positively tiny stock levels and lack of marketing presence. It didn’t help that some of it’s puzzles don’t even really work on the DS Lite and beyond. This is the kind of game that is, and always has been, a rarity – a game completely and totally made to the exact specifications of one system only, fitting it like a fine tailored glove. And for that poignant reason, Another Code: Two Memories will always be one of my most treasured DS memories. One of the only games to ever be completed by myself and all three of my siblings independently, Another Code delivers a blend of chilling mystery, stylish presentation and truly imaginative outside-of-the-box puzzle solutions that has not been matched in my fifteen year history of playing videogames.
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4. Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is in my experience the closest a game has ever come to capturing the spirit and style of my favourite RPG ever, the Gamecube’s Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Developed by talented first party studio Alpha Dream, the game serves up a substantial mix of gameplay variety by alternately placing you in control of the titular brothers, who spend much of the game traversing the insides of their sworn enemy Bowser, and the koopa king himself, who must fight against the always hilarious caped baddie Fawful in the name of his own ego. The cathartic reflex-based battle system, charming art style, creative uses of DS hardware features and spectacularly entertaining script make Bowser’s Inside Story a very easy recommendation by yours truly.
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3. Advance Wars: Dual Strike

Unfortunately seen by many fans as the last “real” Advance Wars game, Dual Strike was a game that stayed nestled in my DS cartridge slot for a ridiculously long time. Released very early in the handheld’s life cycle, the third Advance Wars game to see western retail shelves took the “more is more” approach from Advance Wars 2 on the GBA and turned the dial up even higher. What’s better than one Commanding Officer in charge of your army? Two! What’s better than a CO Power and a Super CO Power? A Tag Power, where your units get to move twice and everyone is super juiced and you kill EVERYTHING! There were more COs, more maps, more modes, more unlockables, more colours, more amazing music tracks, more viable strategies, more everything. Somewhat ridiculously, it all worked, because your opponent almost always had access to just as much choice and chaos as you did. I’m talking about this game in the past tense because it’s hard to see this kind of game getting made nowadays, but I kinda hope the design philosophy that brought it about gets another chance over at Intelligent Systems. Dual Strike had content stretching as far as the eye could see, and it’s one of my personal favourite games on any platform as a result.
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2. Pokemon Diamond/Platinum/Soul Silver/White/White 2

I could have separated these into their own entries rather easily, spreading them out across the list. But to minimise repetition and limit everyone’s boredom, let’s just say all the DS Pokemon games belong up here, which is pretty much true. Each one of the five Pokemon games I played on the dual screen marvel is special to me in some way, and I can clearly remember different games coinciding with different important moments in my life. Pokemon was there in my high school graduating year, it helped me make some of the best friends I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, it was a constant presence as I started and then developed this very blog. Diamond gave me many of my favourite in-game story moments in the series, Soul Silver transformed my opinion on remakes, and White, well, White took over my gaming time like no other game ever has, giving me priceless competitive moments I can hold over friends’ heads forever. Pokemon games have been a part of me pretty much from the beginning of my gaming life, and if you ask me, the DS era represented some of its best years.
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1. Mario Kart DS

Only the late-arriving scourge known to hardcore players as “snaking” would stop me from making the argument that Mario Kart DS is objectively the very best game ever released on the decade-old DS console. It was visually stunning for its time, at certain moments frankly defying belief in the limitations of the DS hardware, with a balanced roster of characters and karts, a superb track selection, responsive controls and the best use of DS download play in history (giving up to eight players the ability to play on eight of the game’s tracks off just one game cartridge). The late nights and early mornings I gave to this near-masterpiece over the years are too numerous to mention. MK DS was and still is a technical feat of note, representing the kind of exemplary experience Nintendo does best. It’s certainly my favourite Mario Kart game, and as you can now see, my favourite DS game of all time.
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Where are the others?
There really are a lot of other games worth mentioning outside of my list. Let’s start with The World Ends With You, because I can just feel the glares from the folks who love that game. Truth be told, I never got into it. I only found out about the game when it was too late to get a hold of a copy easily, and by then I had well and truly moved onto other things. Ditto for 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors, though I did love its sequel. The critically acclaimed Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective and Hotel Dusk: Room 215 (the latter by the same developers responsible for Another Code) were in a similar boat, and I never really had all that much interest in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days or any of the Professor Layton or Castlevania games.

In terms of proper honorable mentions, a.k.a games I actually did play and enjoy, there was Final Fantasy IV, which I played for quite a bit but had my save crash on me, the original New Super Mario Bros (that’s still a really weird thing to say), and the surprising multiplayer goodness of More Brain Training and Tetris DS. Finally, the meaty 2011 version of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords would take my award for best DSi exclusive game. You know, if I had one.

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